Life Think #85: Dad.exe

July 21, 2011


I posit that for many baby boomer dads the 1990s were a time akin to the 1980s AIDS epidemic for the gay community. But, rather than battling some scourge which attacked one’s immune system, what fathers of the 90s combated were computer viruses.

At least that’s how I remember my dad during those years: cold evenings huddled in front of the computer, monitoring stuttering green progress bars and ominously ever-upward-ticking red numerals; middle-of-the-night lamplight phone calls to other dads, smouldering cigarette pincered between trembling digits (“I hear you have software, man. AVG? Norton? I need it bad, man. I’m fucked, I’m totally fucked.”); mysterious men of German extraction that would disappear into the computer room with my father for hours on end, eventually emerging with bloodshot eyes and far less respect for my father than when they’d entered.

To these afflicted men the sound of a connecting dial-up modem was an anticipatory scream of pain. At barbeques they would clandestinely compare their symptoms – deleted photos, the absence of the “It’s now safe to turn off your computer” text when shutting down, repeated displaying of the “It’s now safe to turn off your computer” text when launching Netscape Navigator, and of course the blue screen of death. One of my strongest recollections is returning from school to find my dad shrieking Scottishly into the phone at the receptionist from Terry Anthony Computers (our family ISP to this day) “Ask Jeeves? Fuck Jeeves!”

This was a long way from the heady, carefree days of the 1980s, when dads would freely swap 5¼-inch floppy disks full of pirated Commodore 64 and Amiga software with their trusted work colleagues. Some games still came out on cassette tape, for God’s sake. “Oh, by the way, Andrew,” these dads would say winkingly to my father (In the Scottish tradition, I am eponymously named after my father – his own personal self-titled concept album if you will), “I put a little something extra on that disk you may enjoy. Don’t let the kids play it.”

They were of course referring to the blocky graphics of C64 Strip Poker, a game I defeated at nine years of age, finding it somewhat disappointing that the nipples of my alarmingly magenta opponent were made up of no more than four brown pixels (they were square). It was a pyrrhic victory, for I had more than once been rendered entirely nude by that orthogonal card-whiz harpy. I wholly blame this game for the subsequently tardy loss of my virginity.

When 1994 rolled around those days of simple virtue were long gone. So my dad, as most dads did in those days out of pure desperation, turned for solace to the only person that could not reject him: the 19-year-old Harvey Norman sales clerk. These young poet-warriors spoke in specs and were the high priests to Generation Dad, reluctantly taking confessions on browser history and virus scan logs. More than once I recall my father collapsing at the feet of one of these pimply-faced, greasy-haired messiahs, gripping at their unironed, oversized Beare & Ley shirtfronts and begging for help. These wiry young men seemingly held a secret knowledge that my father coveted. To him 486 was just the year that Roman rule in Gaul ended with their defeat at Soissons, but to the Harvey Norman salesboy, it was the computational answer to my father’s prayers.

And so a pattern emerged: computers that eventually seized up with virii, like a tinman with insufficient oil, would be secretly dumped in the basement, one after the other. First the 286, then the 486, the 586, quickly followed by an ill-gotten i586 (a pox upon its random access memory), the Pentium II and III were all unceremoniously dumped on the dirt-floored cellar (along with my collection of Hypercolor t-shirts). I imagine a group of archaeologists two thousand years hence stumbling across the area under the ruins of my parent’s house and claiming they had found the location of some ancient robot battleground.

I should confess at this point, or rather, I should have confessed at the start of this article, that it was actually *I* that was the source of the majority of viruses that plagued my father’s life. Back then (in 1995) I was an aspiring young archivist and thought it would be smart to download everything on the internet, just in case the whole internet thing, you know, didn’t work out. Upon the collapse of the internet age (which I anticipated would occur around the year 2000 with the defeat of Al Gore), people would be forced to visit me like some antediluvian keeper of sacred scrolls and whisper in reverential tones “It is said that ye have the whole of the internet on thine computer, o wise one? I beseech thee to permit me to view the animated gif of the dancing baby from Ally McBeal, if only for the briefest of moments, mi lord.”

Much as AIDS medications have improved markedly in the past two decades, so has computer security. Nowadays, my father is lucky to get one or two viruses a year. You would think this would make him extremely happy, but the sad truth is, as I watch him dutifully uploading photos of his trip to Tasmania, amending the screen display properties or aimlessly shifting icons around his desktop, I see emptiness in his pale blue eyes. Like Superman without Lex Luthor, or Samuel L. Jackson in that shitty M. Night Shyamalan movie, he ultimately misses those viral nemeses of yesteryear. They – despite costing him thousands in both time and money, weeks upon weeks of stress and sleepless nights – they gave his life a purpose that his wife and children were never really able to provide.

At least that’s what I tell myself as I deliberately download malware and Trojan horses to his computer when he is out of the room. * For my dad the next two months will be an eventful restoration of those turbulent days back in 1994. Once again, he will feel alive. I chuckle as I think of the poor, now 35-year-old, Harvey Norman sales clerk. That bastard doesn’t know what’s coming.

You’re welcome, dad … you’re welcome.

* Note: Shortly after typing this sentence the author came to the realisation that in taking the aids/computer viruses analogy to its illogical conclusion he seemed to accidentally imply that the gay community somehow missed aids and that they should be deliberately infected as a means of giving their lives purpose. Therefore it should be assumed by the reader that the metaphor ends somewhere around the use of the phrase “ancient robot battleground”.

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